Amber Wolf’s been a lot of things in her life: Lawyer, mom, cop’s wife, judge. Now she can add a new title: viral video star.
Buzz has been building around Wolf, a Kentucky judge, over the past couple of weeks after a pair of videos went viral that showed her doing something judges aren’t necessarily known for: showing compassion. In one video she’s outraged over a woman in her court with no pants, in the other she lets a man appearing before her hold his 1-month-old son for the first time.
It’s made Wolf, a district judge in Kentucky’s Jefferson County, what they call “Internet famous.”
“I don’t know how this happened,” she told CNN. “This is all mind-boggling to me. It’s completely unexpected. It’s not something that ever even crossed my mind, that I would ever go viral.”
But viral she is, in videos that could alter just slightly how we view the men and women of the bench. The videos and buzz around them could also could drastically change Wolf’s life and career path — if she’d let it.
First, came the video of the woman with no pants
The courtroom video footage isn’t exactly HD-quality, but you can make out what’s going. A woman stands at a podium with her attorney to face Wolf. The woman is wearing a big, grey T-shirt — and seemingly no pants.
Wolf’s shocked expression, even through the grainy video, is crystal clear.
“Am I in the ‘Twilight Zone?’ What is happening?” she asks, incredulous at the sight of the pantsless woman before her.
Court comes to a halt. Wolf advises someone off camera “this is going to take a little bit” as she calls the jail to talk to “anyone who can come to my courtroom and tell me why there is a female defendant standing in front of me with no pants on?”
Wolf apologizes to the woman: “I’m not trying to embarrass you; I’m very sorry.”
Then Wolf makes one last request: “Can we get her something to cover up with? Anything?”
The video of Wolf’s act of compassion, demonstrated in a place where there usually is none, spread like a wildfire through social media two weeks ago, a good news story in a summer of bad ones.
Next, came the video of the man who met his baby
And then it happened again. Earlier this week another video from Wolf’s courtroom went viral. This time it was Wolf letting a defendant briefly hold his 1-month-old son for the first time in her courtroom.
The man and the child’s mother were co-defendants in a burglary case, so there was a no-contact order between them, but since they both happened to be in court at the same time, Wolf temporarily granted an exception so that he could meet his child.
The man, clad in an orange jumpsuit, takes his son and holds him for almost a minute, gently rocking him and kissing him on the forehead.
“You see his little shirt?” asks Wolf, smiling from the bench with her head in her hand.
The man and woman are in tears, so Wolf offers some tissues.
“Give everybody some,” she says to a man in a suit who gives them to the couple.
Later after the man, woman and child have left the courtroom, Wolf turns to someone off-camera and jokingly declares, “If ya’ll aren’t teared up, then you’re just heartless.”
Wolf’s compassionate, but not a pushover
For folks who say that Wolf’s approach is just coddling criminals, Wolf points out that wasn’t the first time she’d seen that particular defendant in her courtroom.
“There were previous interactions between myself and the man in the baby video that weren’t quite as kind, weren’t quite as nice. In fact I’m a lot more stern. Perhaps those people would be more proud of those videos.”
Wolf hopes people realize she didn’t let him out of jail in that video.
“He needs to be there right now,” she said, “but he has this son that hopefully will be a positive influence. Letting him hold his baby can give him something to focus on and something to think about while he’s in custody.”
If that’s the spark that causes the man to change his life, why not do it?
She says judges do this more than you think
Wolf seems to be less impressed with what she’s done than others are because, as she tells it, judges do this kind of thing more than we think.
“It does happen a lot, more often than people think,” said Wolf, who was elected to the bench in 2014. She’s done kind things for people in court before, she says, but it just didn’t get noticed.
Wolf says she often writes what she calls “inspirational Post-It notes” that she gives to defendants, in the hope that it’ll help spark a positive change in their lives. One particular case remains with her, of a man who appeared before her so heavily addicted to heroin that she thought he was going to die.
“I talked to him forever,” Wolf said. “I brought him up to the bench. I think I even turned the record off and said ‘just talk to me.'”
The man cried as he told Wolf about how heroin had wrecked his life, costing him his family, including having no contact with his young daughter. The saddest part, the man said, was that he didn’t even get any enjoyment out of the drug anymore. He was so addicted to it he needed it just to be able to get out of bed in the morning.
“He said ‘I don’t even get high off of heroin anymore; my body will not function without it, that’s how bad I am.'”
She believes in the power of the note
Wolf continued talking to the man, offering him positive encouragement in his drug battle, reminding him that getting off drugs was the fastest way to reestablish a relationship with his daughter.
She wrote for him one of her inspirational Post-It notes, that simply read “You can do this.”
The man kept the note, but Wolf never heard from him again — until the videos went viral.
“He contacted me and said, ‘You saved my life. I’m sober and clean; I’ve rekindled a relationship with my family. They love me again, I’m allowed to be with my daughter and I never knew life could be this good.'”
And that is why I do what I do, Wolf said.
The comments were positive … mostly
Since the two videos from her courtroom went viral, she’s heard — in thousands of messages — from people from across the country, and around the world. Wolf said the response to the videos has been overwhelmingly positive. Now, with this being social media and all, Wolf said she has gotten some nasty, negative comments from folks convinced she’s soft on crime, but she’s not too worried about them.
She’s also heard from judges who’ve done similar things.
“I can only imagine that if I’ve done it so many times that there are many other judges out there that have done it,” she said. “And in fact I have gotten some messages both from colleagues in Kentucky and people across the country that have said, ‘oh I’ve done something similar, or good job, I’m really proud of the way you handled that, I would have done the exact same thing.'”
“The colleagues I have here in Jefferson County I know do things like this. There’s a few in particular that I know have gone out of their way to try to connect with people and be kind to them. We really do care. We care about these people; we care about our community, and we know that the only way our community can improve is by getting these people to change their lifestyles.”
Wolf believes part of the videos’ drawing power is that it casts judges in a different, softer light.
“It’s the way that judges are portrayed on TV. People think we’re very harsh and cold and disconnected from the people,” she said of the judge stereotype. “I don’t think in reality that that is the truth. But we don’t see that very often. You don’t see it in the media; you don’t see it on TV. You see these robots in robes; in reality were just people with feelings and emotions. We’re there doing a job and trying to do the best we can to improve our community.”
She came from humble beginnings
Wolf’s a Louisville girl, through and through. She was born there, went to school, college and law school there and now serves the city she loves from the bench.
She’s married to a Louisville police officer, and yes, talk around the dinner table will often turn toward their intertwining careers in law enforcement, as the judge and the cop discuss their day. But their lives really aren’t overwhelmed by a focus on crime and the law; they are raising children, after all. That gives them lots of other things to talk about.
“We are two different people and we have two different career paths and while they might intertwine, it’s perfect for us. It’s perfect for our lifestyle.”
She’s always wanted to be a judge, even when she was a little girl. It’s the type of dream that would almost seem unattainable for someone with a background like Wolf’s, which she described as growing up in a family with limited means.
“I come from kind of a lower-income household,” she said. “(A legal career) wasn’t really something that seemed like an option. Like me going to law school wasn’t ever something that was taken seriously until right when I was graduating college and I took the LSAT and did well on it and then applied to law school and got in.”
She’s a balanced judge
After graduating from the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville in 2007, Wolf went to work in the public defender’s office, working with indigent defendants. For her it was an excellent entryway into real-world law.
“If you want to go into criminal law, or even to be a trial lawyer, the best place to start out is as a public defender,” she said. “Because you get so much experience right off the bat. You are just thrown right into it.”
Hold on, time to tackle another legal stereotype. Is being a public defender like it is on TV, where the defendant meets his or her attorney just seconds before stepping into the courtroom?
“It’s just like that,” Wolf said with a laugh. With so many clients and a finite number of attorneys, extensive lawyer-client prep time is a luxury most don’t get to enjoy.
She left the public defender’s office after a couple of years to start her own practice. After dealing with everything from criminal defense, juvenile law, family law and civil law, Wolf joined the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor in 2011. Three years later, she was elected judge.
She feels having worked as both a defense attorney and a prosecutor make her a better judge.
“For me, it helps,” she said. “I think I’m a more well-rounded judge. I’m not one-sided. I have the ability to step back and hear both sides and take myself out of either parties arguments and be able to look at it as an outsider because I understand both sides.”
Hollywood is NOT in her future
Wolf admits her social media fame has been fun, but don’t worry, this Kentucky judge has no plans to go Hollywood.
“I have received some offers (about doing a TV judge show), that I’ve not taken seriously at all,” she said. “I can’t do that. That’s not a possibility. That would be such a conflict of interest. The job that I do is to improve our communities, to be an arbiter of justice and you can’t do that for entertainment purposes.”
Wolfe said TV judge shows like “Judge Judy,” while they aren’t fake, are more of a “handpicked” version of reality.
“Those aren’t really the people that would normally be going to that courtroom,” she said.
Wolf can’t pick the people who appear before her. And besides the reality of Wolf’s courtroom is not nearly as riveting.
“Nobody can come into my courtroom and video what I do on a daily basis and make that into a TV show. It’s not entertaining at all. Yes, of course we have our funny moments and crazy moments and sad moments and things that you could grab onto, but that’s not the purpose of it.”
“And I think it would be such a conflict of interest and make my constituents question whether or not the decisions I made were for entertainment purposes or because that was the right thing to do. And my goal, as a human and as a judge is to try to do the right thing.”